Updated: Apr 4, 2019
"And when foreigners come to this city all they talk about is the heat, dust, and oil; why do they not love our city?" - "Because they are foreigners" - Ali & Nino
To the Caspian Sea
The Black Sea to the Caspian in one day. One long day. First leg - train from the resort town of Batumi with its semi-tropical coastline and sprouting hotel complexes, bonatical gardens and thunderstorms to Tbilisi, seven hours of comparative bliss on a shiny new electric train from the shiny new train station, a world of difference from the dreaded marshrutka. Plenty of legroom, space and time to relax. Two khachapuri breads and a bottle of pop, Kapuscinski to keep me company: 'Travels With Heredotus'. Blissful. I'm off to Baku, capital of oil-rich neighbour of Georgia to the east, Azerbaijan. I have a job teaching English for one month. My flight from Tbilisi could not have been at a worse time. The hours between waking and sleeping, upsetting the body clock, keeping you awake, the time when night ends and day begins. Hours of waiting around. Finally, we take off - we're up in the clouds. A little double-propellor job which hardly inspires confidence, a flying sardine tin. Welcome to Azeri Airlines. I don't care much by this time though and just want to get there. We're in the air for only one hour and twenty minutes. A train journey would have taken 14 hours. The most uninspiring in-flight meal ever: a chicken and cheese roll wrapped in cellophane, served with a plastic cup of warm cherry juice. I hope it's not a sign of things to come. Dawn arrives as we begin our descent over Baku. It comes as a shock after Georgia, so close but so different. There, it is green, luscious, abundant. Here, I look down and it is semi-desert, shades of browns, beiges and greys, interspersed with alarmingly-coloured lakes; one is orange, another a kind of murky dark brown. Large patches of black dot the ground everywhere: oil, seeping up through the soil and polluting everything. Welcome to Baku - a post-industrial wasteland. Mad Max and its bleak landscapes come to mind. We descend over the Caspian in order to turn around for our landing. and over the wide, crescent-shaped bay that Baku inhabits. Oil fields everywhere. One set of rigs, linked by roads, almost a town. In fact, there is a real off-shore town, two-hours' helicopter flight from here, in the middle of the Caspian. Dubbed in Azeri 'Neft Daslari' ('Oily Rocks'). Built in 1949, it is in fact the world's only off-shore 'town' - it's constructed on stilts out in the Caspian, with some 210km of roads, a cinema, a bakery, even a park. High Soviet tenement blocks accommodate the rotating population of 2000 workers. An intriguing tourist attraction - but unfortunately out of bounds unless you have an official invitation - or work there.
Baku - Mushrooming Capital
Coming in to land, I look down at the sea - sparkling grey, with mottled patches of black everywhere, lurking just beneath the surface. Through customs quite quick, visa on arrival - a rather steep $100 (thankfully it's paid for). Taxi to my digs. Buildings going up everywhere, a sense of a city being invested in. Infrastructure seemingly better than Georgia's; handsome facades everywhere, buildings and roads on first glance good quality. My apartment is huge and fairly central. I share with Eve, another English teacher. 100m2, new build, wooden floors and fittings, double glazing, air-con. Can't complain - much nicer than my Krakow flat.
You pay for it here though - $600 gets you a room for a month here. No bed has ever looked so welcoming. It is 9.30am. Baku is going through an unprecedented building boom. The town is sprouting new apartment and office blocks like mushrooms; it seems hard to believe that so much space is needed. Xatai, ('Hataye') our neighbourhood, is just acres of empty shells, waiting to be filled. "A lot of these buildings are built from laundered money", I am later told.. I have rarely seen a city in such a state of flux. Cranes and building machinery dominate the skyline, and I search for shade as I stroll into town from my residential neighbourhood. The city is not built for pedestrians - sidewalks are narrow and often non-existent, and cars take little notice of you when you're crossing the road. The heat beats down from the sun - a dry heat, much more reminiscent of the middle east than in Georgia. Not much shade. I walk past the docks then down to the promenade, to the wide sweep of Baku Bay.
More construction work, several huge skeletons dominate the skyline, along with a host of other shiny new glass-fronted malls, office blocks, apartments and hotels. Families walk along the front with its neatly trimmed grass verges, manicured plants and fountains. All very tidy, spruce. I go to the old town, dominated by the striking 19th Century military watch-tower, dubbed Maiden Tower. It looks fairly unprepossessing, quite an oddly-shaped, blunt stone tower, but it is said to date back as far as 500 BC, and has many myths attached to it. The most bizarre of these is that an old khan fell in love with his daughter and asked for her hand in marriage; stalling, she asked that he build a tower for her to show his love, and when it was complete, she threw herself off the top to avoid the terrible fate of marrying her own father. I climbed the tower for a better view of my surrounds. From the top of it, you get a great view of 'Ishacishari', the old town.
This old, walled part of Baku is its heart, charmingly redolent of a bygone era, and an escape from the city's traffic and noise. It's the kernel in the nut of Baku, a town within a town. It's not exactly up there with the old walled cities of Damascus or Jerusalem, but it's atmospheric enough, and, in The Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a beautiful 15th Century complex, has at least one building which is on the UNESCO list.
It's all very pleasant. I go into the truncated Muhammad Mosque (11th Century) and feel for the first time that I am actually in a Muslim country. The Muezzin call is conspicuous by its absence in this city, and along with lax attitudes to things like consumption of alcohol here, one can get the impression that this is only nominally an Islamic country - an incorrect impression, although mosque-going is not as strictly observed here as in the Middle east. Women never wear veils and only occasionally do you see headscarves. Alcohol is drunk, though not in great quantities, and rarely by women. In other respects though, the country is deeply conservative, and is entrenched in family values. Women have to do as their parents or husbands say very often, and have not really got outright autonomy as women do in the west. A strange brew of eastern orthodoxy/islam with Soviet attitudes in this part of the world; in some ways the Soviet Union made people here (and Georgia) cling on to their culture (and religion) more strongly, while from the outside these values, along with churches (and here most of their mosques) were being destroyed.
I go in search of food. Lots of pricey restaurants. I choose one, a sushi place, and look at the menu - it's like being back in western Europe. Dishes 15-30 Manat (1 Manat = 1 Euro). I quickly leave. Most restaurants I go in are exhorbitant, and, it seems, the bars are too. I had read that restaurants are a mix of Persian/Turkish/Russian influences here, which has given the food quite an international flavour, though I notice Turkish restaurants dominate. Most of the bars are of the fake Irish, expat variety - the Maccy D's of bars. I generally avoid expat bars - they are the same the world over, full of drunk outsiders who don't have a clue where they are, but are usually earning too much. Boring, and often quite depressing. I meet a group of English-speaking guys and tag along with them, we find ourselves in a restaurant called Caravanserai, which, as its name suggests, is designed like a historic travellers' inn. Carved out of stone and on two levels. All open-air, decorated with Arabic designs and with live music. Azeri food. I notice that it's all very similar to Turkish food; kebab-based with some variations. Lots of lamb, beef, dolma, lentil soup, baklava. Azeris identify themselves culturally with the Turks, and their languages are almost identical; they look up to Turkey and align themselves politically. Indeed, they were tacitly supported by them in their conflict with Armenia. Azerbaijan has historically never really been an entity in itself, only as separate 'khanates', areas ruled over by local lords, and always as part of some greater empire, be it Persia, Ottoman or Russian, so like for example Belarus, is still in the process of working out what national identity means. For the most part, it seems, it means hating Armenia. The two nations fought bitterly in the early 90's over Nagornno-Karrabach, and Armenia won. Azerbaijan has never forgiven them. Nationalism here is de rigeur as a result, unfortunately. The government does nothing to discourage this; indeed, state-sponsored hatred of Armenia appears to be one of the things that keeps Aliyev's regime relatively stable and in a position to retain power. It's a policy that arguably unites a nation with a shaky sense of self-belief. There is a war monument high above Baku called Martyr's Lane, honouring the martyrs of this war, as well as those that died in battle against the Bolsheviks in 1918, both of whose outcomes seem to fester in the Azeri psyche. It is moving and clearly an important sight in Baku if you want to understand the depth of feeling over the issue. Gravestones run for a couple of hundred metres to a marble monument burning an eternal flame.
One day I went out with some students to the Caspian for a boat trip. The 30 minute walk into town was exhausting, the 35 degree heat too much. The students arrived, just three of them, and were keen to show us everything. I soon got into a conversation about Nagorno-Karabach with one of them, Tale. This is Azerbaijan's Palestine; the thorn in their side, an issue so divisive that, when asked your opinion on the subject, I had already been warned, it is best to shrug your shoulders and claim ignorance. Basically, it's a sliver of land about the size of Lancashire which the Armenians grabbed after the break-up of the Soviet Union, with Russian backing. Azeris had a very good claim to it, but so did the Armenians. The population of the area was divided roughly equally. Stalin had a hand in it all of course, awarding the land (which was until the 30's part of Armenia) to Azerbaijan. On the break-up of the Soviet Union, the conflict started, and lasted four years. Many thousands on both sides died; the Armenians prevailed. The region is not officially recognised by the world now as part of Armenia, and still appears on Azeri maps, as Abkhazia does in Georgia. "We would fight again today," Tale told me, "but the British say that they would take their oil company (BP) out of our country if we did. They want peace here". Oil, politics, money. This city is built on so much potential, but no one seems happy. We went out on the boat as the sun was going down. Striking views of the city - it looks better when viewed from a distance and when the temperature has cooled down. I look down at the water. Rainbows of oil on the surface; thick globules bubble up now and then. "No fish here, all dead" I am told. The sturgeon fishermen, who fish the waters of the Caspian for the sought-after caviar, have to sail for days into the centre of the sea, miles away from the oil fields, before they have a chance of catching anything.
There is a terrible environmental problem in this country, and you don't need to travel far to notice it. Not only the sea, but the beaches, the rivers, the countryside - they are all suffering, whether it be because of the ubiquitous oil, which you often see literally seeping from the surface of the land into stagnant puddles on the outskirts of the city, or because of the lax attitudes to rubbish, which is just strewn across the landscape, even in the countryside. Tragic, but no one appears to care too much.
To the Hinterlands
I travelled outside the city to the Abseron Peninsula, which contains a few scraggy beaches and one or two tourist attractions, the most interesting of which is called the Atshegar Fire Temple: a living monument to the erstwhile religion of this region before Islam came along - Zorastrianism.
Most people know this religion simply as fire-worshippers. Zorastrians from all around the Middle east and Central Asia used to come here to worship - Baku was considered the centre for this religion, and mystics would lead their followers to these strange lands where fire once came through the very ground, burning from eternal gas vents lying far beneath, as black, flamable liquid seeped up with it. Along with the fierce sun that scorched the earth for months on end here, it is no great surprise that people ended up praying to fire and the sun: it was, to them, God. The temple itself is bizarrely situated in the outskirts of town; to get there, you have to take a metro and long bus ride, then traipse along a railway line, past a field of oil derricks - nodding donkeys - and through some waste land (at no point is there any signposting, you have to ask locals).
Arriving can cause some shock to the people working there, who probably get very few visitors, and I'd imagine a handful of foreign visitors each year; they follow you like a shadow round the temple, deeply suspicious of your motives for being there. I enjoy the surreal experience nevertheless, though being near these gas vents spewing fire (no longer natural) in 38 degree heat is probably not a good idea; I feel faint from it all and am dying for a drink. Sadly I have to walk for half an hour to find a shop selling one in this part of the city. Although it's a small temple, it's interesting and the Hindu inscriptions above the entrance are a fascinating piece of evidence that this place links Europe to Asia. I am reminded of Baku's unique geographical position. One more reminder of this comes the next day when I decide to visit arguably Baku's oddest site: the spewing 'mud volcanoes' at Qobustan.
These were located about an hour outside of the city and were only really accessible by taxi - 25 Manat with waiting time, although you need to check the driver will go the last couple of kilometres down a mud track. These bizarre mud hillocks are over-advertised as volcanoes, but they do indeed resemble those fire-spewing freaks of nature. The luke-warm clayish mud bubbling and farting over the area of about half a football pitch is unique and probably worth the trip, but like many things in Baku left me feeling ambivalent.
Wisla Put to the Sword
One of my students invited me to a football match: the local team, Qarabg Baku v Wisla Krakow, my adopted city. Of course, I have to go. Europa Cup qualifying round; Baku won the first leg, surprisingly, in Krakow, 1-0. (For a full match report I wrote please see the link below). I finished classes and went to the match with him by metro - only two stops from the centre in a place called Gunchlik. Outside the stadium stands a statue to the famous Azeri linesman Tofik Bakhramov, hero to England in 1966. I have my photo taken next to him. Fans mill around outside the ground, all good-natured, though I notice that there is a heavy police presence. Tickets from a tout - marked up to 2 Manat (2 Euro) - one of the few bargains I saw in this country; it seems this is still very much a sport for the workers, no flash cars here. Inside, the stadium is shaped like a big 'C' - in tribute to Stalin ('C' in Cyrillic is 'S' in Latin), it's all concrete and crumbling, pretty decrepit, but the atmosphere is amazing. Half an hour before the match starts, the stadium is already nearly full, there's a solid firm in the centre chanting, setting off fire crackers, waving the green, blue and red Azeri flag. The teams come on the pitch: Karrabach players to a hero's welcome, Wisla's to a round chorus of boos and a hail of abuse. The match kicks off and Wisla are on the front foot, but slowly Karrabach get a toe-hold in the game and on a counter-attack they score; 2-0 on aggregate. Then they score another. And another. 4-0 on aggregate, and they are all over Wisla, who have visibly wilted in the balmy summer heat. Out of Europe at the first hurdle. Wisla do get two goals back in the second half but it's too little, too late and they are out. Fans celebrate like they have won the competetion; they are absolutely delighted, and why shouldn't they be - this is quite a scalp for them. Next up: Borussia Dortmund. For Wisla, a long flight home, and plenty of soul-searching no doubt. It seems football is on the way up in this country - I recently found out that Tony Adams is managing a team called Gabala in the north of Azerbiajan, a town of 14,000. And they are paying him premier league wages. You do the math..just don't ask where they are getting that money. He just lost his first match in charge. Good luck to him, god knows he needs it here. (Ed. Adams lasted 18 months and left in November 2011, citing 'cultural differences' as a reason for quitting.. Baku were defeated 7-1 by Borussia in the next round)
A Bridge Between Continents
Baku is a bridge between two continents - it belongs to neither, and probably never will; it's one of those obstinate places in between that refuses to be classified. It's blessing is also its curse - oil brings it potentially untold wealth, but it remains in the hands of a few - the drivers of all the Mercedes, BMW's and Hummers are far outnumbered by those of the Lada in this country - and yet those people have to struggle by on the high prices and inflation that these lucky few have helped to bring about. A foreign teacher's wages are only just adequate here, god knows what life is like for normal shop workers and civil servants, teachers and nurses, those in public administration. It seems they have to work 6 or 7 days a week to make ends meet a lot of the time. For now, it makes do, and the oil justifies everything, as buildings go up, fancy new bars and restaurants open, gleaming malls and shops with vastly-inflated western prices line the boulevard by the sea front. You get the feeling that it's all just a little false though, like too much make up on an ageing woman, used to hide the cracks. Until they have things right at grass-roots here - until corruption is tackled and politicians start doing a proper job - that status quo will be as it is, and the foreigners will continue to view the city as they did in the time of Ali and Nino. Which is sad.
I spent one month teaching in Baku, and that is how long a standard visa lasts. I travelled the 500km overland to the Georgian border to arrive on the day the visa ran out. At the border point, I was refused exit despite everything seemingly being in order. The border guards claimed it was a 30 day visa and the visa had run out because it went from 31st July-31st August; I was leaving on 31st August. The thirty days had expired. In other words, an extreme technicality. I was forced to return to Baku despite protestation (and attempted payment/bribe at the border) to buy an extension - which cost the extortionate price of 400 Euro. This was the exact value of a disputed amount I had forced the school I was working for to hand over, and the obvious connection to make is that the school I worked for had links to the authorities and deliberately made it impossible for me to leave. Even if this were not true, the level of hassle, stress and bureaucracy caused by the experience left an extremely bitter taste in the mouth and would prevent me from recommending Azerbaijan as a safe destination for tourists. I felt I was being followed during this time, and on more than one occasion was suspiciously approached by individuals claiming to be against the regime and inviting me to discussion which was extremely suspicious.
Sad to say but in Azerbaijan civil liberties are limited, freedom of speech is muzzled, the legal system is corrupt, and journalists and political opponents are routinely jailed. In the run-up to the 2013 re-election of President Aliyev, there was a particularly harsh clamp-down on critics of the regime. I've travelled in many countries where the above is true, but none where I have felt that my own personal safety and freedom of movement are under threat. I felt that way for the final part of my stay in Azerbaijan, and the moment I was over the border and back in Georgia I felt a huge sense of relief. To live in Azerbaijan is to live in a state of fear and uncertainty, and one must observe the political situation carefully before going and whilst there. The above blog was published while I was staying in Baku in 2010, and was probably enough to make me a persona non grata in the eyes of the authorities. Whether or not my experience was real or imagined; be warned. Azerbaijan is a police state, no more, no less, and it is paranoid about its image in the wider world, which makes it a risk.
Like this? Then like us on our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram. Also, sign up to our website above so you don't miss any future posts!
For an article on the current state of play in Azerbaijan, go here.
This blog is part of a series. See the previous/next parts here:
Here is a city guide to Baku, with loads of tips and insider advice about where to go and what to do:
To see the match report between Qarabag FC and Wisła Kraków. please go here.